DiCaprio, Pitt shine in ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ … but overall film left us disappointed

‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’

Rated R: Language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.
Playing at: Alamo Drafthouse, Premiere Cinemas, Tinseltown 17, and Stars & Stripes Drive-In.
Credits – Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Cinematography by Robert Richardon. Edited by Robert Richardson. Production design by Barbara Ling. Costume design by Arianne Phillips. Music supervisor: Mary Ramos.
Stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Rafal Zawierucha as Roman Polanski, Damon Herriman as Charles Manson, Margaret Qually as Pussycat, Austin Butler as Tex, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Luke Perry as Wayne Maunder, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarz, Brenda Vaccaro as Mary Alice Schwarz, Kurt Russell as Randy, Lorenzo Izzo as Francesca Capucci, Julia Butters as Trudi, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, Michael Madsen as “Bounty Law” sheriff, Rebecca Rittenhouse as Michelle Phillips, Bruce Dern as George Spahn, Dreama Walker as Connie Stevens, Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker and Clu Gulager as Book Store Man.

Bill’s rating: Three of five stars

It was on Aug. 22 last year that film director Quentin Tarantino – speaking at the Jerusalem Cinemateque after a screening of “Pulp Fiction” – declared he will stop directing after the release of his first 10 feature films. This month marks the release of his ninth.

Why make such a claim? Only he knows. After all, he earned more Oscar acceptance for his writing than directing – although, truth be told, at least one of his films and several performances in his pictures have given cause for debate.

Looking back, Tarantino-directed movies have included:

  • 1992, “Reservoir Dogs,” (1992 Oscar winner: “Unforgiven”).
  • 1994, “Pulp Fiction,” (1994 Oscar winner: “Forrest Gump”).
  • 1997, “Jackie Brown,” (1997 Oscar winner: “Titanic”).
  • 2003 and 2004 , “Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2,” (2003 Oscar winner: “The Lord of the Rings” and 2004 Oscar winner: “Million Dollar Baby”),
  • 2007, “Death Proof,” (2007 Oscar winner: “No Country For Old Men.”)
  • 2009, “Inglorious Basterds,” (2009 Oscar winner: “The Hurt Locker.”)
  • 2012, “Django Unchained,” (2012 Oscar winner: “Argo.”).
  • 2015, “The Hateful Eight,” (2015 Oscar winner: “Birdman”).
  • 2019, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

First things first, I listed Tarantino’s movies to point out that, while he has delivered entertaining projects, he has not been hustled out of Oscars, as some claim.

Mind you, there could be a fun debate waged by supporters of “Forrest Gump” and ”Pulp Fiction,” but even his current and ninth film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” – with Tarantino making questionable decisions – leaves moviegoers wanting.

Indeed, while some critics (me included) consider the 1970s to be Hollywood’s golden, intelligent decade, Tarantino admits to enjoying a passionate affair with the colorful violence, free love, grindhouse double features and free love of the 1960s.

Never forget his favorite movie is Sergio Leone’s “The Good The Bad and the Ugly” – and he has used music by Italian composer Ennio Morricone in several films.

Tarantino’s newest is “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” the title perhaps a riff on Leone’s masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in the West.” He brings back old friends Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, with his picture considered by many a sloppy wet kiss to the end of the cinematic Hollywood ‘60s.

Mind you, history – both serious and not-so-much – was made in 1969: Woodstock attracted 350,000 rock fans, Senator Edward Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick disaster, a final public performance by the Beatles, Apollo 11 leads American astronauts to be the first walking on the moon, the Rolling Stones used Hells Angels as bouncers at Altamont Speedway; television program “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” arrived, “Sesame Street” debuted on public television and Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” takes America by storm.

Yet Tarantino concludes there can no better way to bid farewell to the decade of the ‘60s than to focus on Hollywood murders in the Benedict Canyon estates by the Charlie Manson Family – a cult which, in real life, left bloody corpses at the estate of filmmaker Roman Polanski, including his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and that of hair stylist friend Jay Sebring.

Not that Tarantino allows facts to get in the way.

Polanski, by the way, was not home that week.

Meanwhile, the new film reveals aging actor Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) being driven to his Cielo Drive mansion by close friend and stunt man Cliff Booth, portrayed by Brad Pitt.

The murders and violent, bloody subplot does not emerge until the film’s closing act, its final 30 to 40 minutes. And even then, the historical depictions of Manson and his family are as accurate as Pitt’s World War II exploits within Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” – which is to say there is documented history and there is Tarantino’s vision.

The better part of the nearly three-hour film is the lengthy introduction. Part of the fun is figuring out the supporting players, but these hours work because DiCaprio and especially Pitt deliver tremendous performances.

And yes, because Tarantino thinks nothing of manipulating characters to fit his story.

Consider: DiCaprio is an actor worried about his reputation after specializing in westerns and the cancellation of his hit television series “Bounty Law.” (Think Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” CBS 1958-1961).

There is even an exact replica of a scene from 1963’s “The Great Escape,” with DiCaprio in the McQueen role after being captured. Naturally, that would be stunt man Booth pulling off the motorcycle jump over barbed wire. Despite the scene shown, evidently Dalton did not win the role.

Mind you, Steve McQueen himself is played in the film by Damian Lewis, who does little more than explain the Polanski-Tate-Sebring relationship to another actor.

Some in the industry dislike Booth because they are certain he got away with killing his wife. I know, that takes us three decades completely out of the ‘60s. Maybe.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s stunt man insults martial arts actor Bruce Lee, calling him Kato, a reference to his role as sidekick to TV’s “The Green Hornet” in the mid-1960s. Lee, portrayed by Mike Moh, would not become a star until the 1970s.

But Tarantino introduces Lee as being cocky enough to turn off fans and, after repeating that his fists are registered weapons, Pitt introduces a challenge and wastes little time in kicking his butt.

At which point he is fired. But then, Pitt’s Booth long ago linked his star to DiCaprio’s Dalton, relying on the stunt work provided.

On the advice from a casting agent played by Al Pacino, Dalton heads to Almeria, Spain, and remakes a name for himself in “Italian westerns” being directed by Sergio Corbucci. (Yes, no doubt inspired by Clint Eastwood’s transformation into the Man With No Name in Leone’s westerns.)

Tarantino originally wanted Burt Reynolds … who passed away in 2018 at age 82 … to play the owner of the Spahn Ranch, who leases land to Manson in return for attention from women in the Manson family. The role now is played by Bruce Dern, who does little with it. But by this time, Pitt has been lured to the camp by come-ons from one of the women in the Family, who is positive, she says, that, “Charlie’s going to dig you.”

All of which finds fighter and stunt man Cliff Booth one of the first to suspect visitors at the Polanski estate … while Dalton, drinking away his problems in the pool next door, hears gunshots and remembers the “hippies” lingering on his road earlier. Without the film’s trailer, no one would suspect the weapon Dalton borrowed after finishing an earlier war film.

Margot Robbie is considered one of the film’s three major stars, cast as actress Sharon Tate. Unfortunately, Tarantino seems to forget Robbie after a tedious sequence in which Tate watches herself on screen in the fourth and final of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm features, 1968’s “The Wrecking Crew.”

Robbie deserved better, without a doubt.

But then, so do audiences who expect so much more after early reviews lauded “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” as 2019’s best film of the summer, if not the year.

Mind you, film and television history geeks are bound to have fun with the movie and Tarantino’s unpredictable manipulations. Also, both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are on the money.

The latter, in fact, shines when cynical young actress Trudi, played by Julia Butters, lets Dalton know that, despite his doubts, he can be an incredible actor.

With Pitt also reportedly great in upcoming science fiction epic “Ad Astra,” at this point an Academy Award nomination for his work in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” appears guaranteed.

Indeed, if nothing else, Tarantino’s ninth movie proves that Pitt is back.

Gage’s rating: Three of five stars

With my more experienced movie reviewing partner at least agreeing with me about the present summertime bust on the big screen, our hopes were high that the arrival of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” would change our luck.

After all, celebrated director Quentin Tarantino would lead movie stars Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, neither of whom had tackled major roles in too long. We were excited.

Even the film’s trailer kept us smiling … and we had been sitting through that for months.

Well, I cannot speak for my partner, but my own conclusion is not even Mr. Tarantinto is immune to a cinematic letdown.

Mind you, it feels like an eternity has passed since we last saw DiCaprio deliver his Academy Award winning work in “The Revenent.” Here, he is cast as aging actor Rick Dalton in the 1960s. One might expect a bit of rust after his taking almost a decade off, but no, he was completely smooth. And His chemistry with Pitt, the true star of the film, is phenomenal,

Pitt plays Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth. It proves to be one of Pitt’s best screen roles.

He nails every scene, from beginning to end, and also provides laughs when working opposite his pet pit  bull co-star.

Looking ahead, Pitt already is earning fine notices for upcoming action-packed science fiction effort “Ad Astra,” and would seem to be in the running for annual comeback honors.

If only all of “Hollywood …” turned out to be as sharp, refined and funny as old friends DiCaprio and Pitt.

Tarantino’s directorial timing seems off. Too many scenes drag in fact, Margot Robbie, cast as Sharon Tate, in one sequence forces us to watch her watch herself throughout too much of the Dean Martin picture “The Wrecking Crew.”

It felt boring and unnecessary, watching Robbie sitting in a theater enjoying her performance. I understand she wants to see what people think of her, but did it really need to be that long?

In terms of story, the film wanders all over. Too many subplots and characters finally meet in the final act as Tarantino closes with a wild, fictional version of 1969’s Charlie Manson cult murders.

Dalton happens to live next door to Tate and her husband, not yet controversial film director Roman Polanski. It turns out DiCaprio, complete with a stolen flame thrower, has an opportunity to regain his previously wavering movie hero confidence.

Pitt’s Booth, also shows he can handle his end in a fight.

Around these fellows, Robbie seems out of place.

Sure, those expecting more evil-doing from the Manson cult will be disappointed.

There are a lot of references to Hollywood stars from the 1960s; some you might miss if not paying attention,

The script by Tarantino delivers a lot of quotable lines within iconic scenes. But make no mistake, the story is at its best with the camera on DiCaprio and Pitt.

Tarantino’s publicized “ninth film” falls under the spell of 2019’s disappointing summer. Even with superb star talent from Pitt and DiCaprio, supported by a really underrated supporting cast, the film’s final act doesn’t work. The picture opens in entertaining fashion, but a defective wheel finds the story veering off course during the closing subplot.

The film should have been terrific, especially with Pitt and DiCaprio. Make no mistake. No one will be bored, but one cannot help but hope that this won’t be regarded as the year’s best.